Saying goodbye to her 'best friend'
Steve Janzen lay in a hospital bed Thanksgiving evening, his wife, Phoebe, and daughters Rachel and Amy, close by. As it had been for hours, his breathing was shallow and sporadic. Pain medication had left him mostly unaware of his surroundings all day.
Unexpectedly, Phoebe noticed a tiny movement.
“His eye opened,” she said. “I was sitting with the girls. I went over and shut it back down.”
However, Steve wasn’t finished.
“It opened up again,” Phoebe said. “I was able to go over and give him a kiss and tell him we loved him. He took one more breath, and that was it.”
It was a touching private end to what, for the past 11 months, had been a remarkably public journey that began shortly after Steve was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last December.
“After Steve found out, I think it was one of the kids, one of his basketball players who put it on Facebook,” Phoebe said.
While Steve was initially reluctant to have his condition revealed, Phoebe felt differently.
“I told him, ‘You know, honey, it’s better to have it out there.’”
Having it “out there” brought the past into the present, as former students and athletes re-connected with Steve to show support.
“People would contact him and he loved hearing from the kids,” Phoebe said. “A lot of the kids when he first taught were connecting with him, and that was back in 1975 in Everest. I think that’s what kept Steve going.”
It fit well with what Phoebe described as Steve’s regular routine.
“A typical day for Steve, he was always reading sports,” she said. “He would read about every kid in Marion County, every kid he’d ever played against, or coached, he’d watch for them and keep track of what they did.”
For Phoebe, social media provided not only support, but also a needed outlet.
“I couldn’t sit in a room and talk to people about it, I’d be crying,” she said. “I’m not a real social person. There’s a whole big difference between being in a big group of people and sitting in a quiet room where I’m expressing my thoughts and letting people know how things are going.”
As Phoebe kept people informed about their journey, support spilled into the community. People bought “Crushing Cancer” T-shirts, they walked and ran in a fun run, and by the end of a September auction, more than $40,000 had been raised to fund Steve’s participation in experimental treatments in Dallas.
Steve’s condition had worsened as he failed to respond to normal treatments. Half of patients diagnosed with his level of pancreatic cancer die within six months. Something different was worth a try.
Jeannie Wildin of Marion connected the Janzens with oncologist Terence Tan, a doctor from Singapore who had practiced at Newton Medical Center. Knowledgeable of current cancer research, Tan facilitated Steve’s match with the Dallas project.
“Look for the good every day and make the best of what happens, just one day at a time” was how the Janzens had lived for nine months, and despite chronic fatigue and reactions to chemotherapy, Phoebe said Steve wanted them to see the sights of Dallas rather than sit in a hotel room.
“Every chemo like that, he would be in sweats at night, and he would hurt afterward,” Phoebe said. “It was pretty gruesome. But he was determined we were going to go see stuff. That’s just the way he was. He wanted to have a good time, he wanted to make the best of it.”
Whether it was a park, Reunion Tower, or Dealy Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, they had a similar routine.
“Mostly we would go walk, I would take pictures, he would find a place to sit down,” Phoebe said.
Three trips to Dallas proved fruitless for Steve’s cancer, however.
“After the first time he kept saying ‘It’s growing, Phoebe, I know it, I can feel it,’” she said. “After Dallas, I knew how sick he was. He always put up a good front for everyone else.”
The Janzens considered other hospitals in Boston, Denver, and southern California, but decided Steve had grown too sick to make the trip.
He still had energy, though, for his favorite pastime, playing with his 11 grandchildren when son Steven and daughters Amy, Rachel, and Amanda brought their families to the farm near Florence.
The Saturday before Thanksgiving, it was grandson Zeke’s turn for some raucous attention, as Steve bounced and rocked with him in a borrowed hospital bed.
“He about tipped the bed over,” Phoebe said. “All the legs were going down except one. He was having as much fun with Zeke as he could.”
It was their last play date. The next day, Phoebe took Steve to St. Luke Hospital. She said she thought he might be there for several weeks, but that changed after she talked with physician Paige Dodson.
“When she said we probably should call the family, that’s when I realized this is it,” Phoebe said.
Steve’s family answered the call.
“Everybody had time to tell him what they needed to tell him,” Phoebe said.
As Phoebe talked Monday about memories of her “best friend,” she drew upon a phrase Steve used at times Phoebe felt anxious.
“It’s going to be OK,” she said. It’s a phrase strengthened by her faith, and the prayerful support of others throughout Steve’s ordeal.
“If you really believe that God takes your soul when you die and that you’re going to go to heaven, well, it’s sad you’re not there yet, it’s sad you had to suffer, but it’s not sad where he is,” she said. “He just got there before me.
“He’s right, I shouldn’t worry, it’s going to be OK. Life goes on, people are born and die every day.”
Last modified Dec. 4, 2014